Discussing Tragedy With Your Children

In the days after a horrific tragedy such as in Las Vegas on October 1st, 2017, parents may be left wondering what to tell their children about the incident.  The sad truth is that there have been way too many news stories about mass killings occurring in the U.S. and around the world in recent years; these events stir up confusion, anger, sadness, and all sorts of unsettling questions. It doesn’t make sense that someone would do something so terrible, so how can you possibly explain it to your kids? Perhaps you are wondering how to keep this world safe for your children.  How can you assure them that it is safe to venture out into the world and continue going to concerts, visiting new cities, or even going to school?

While you may have the urge the avoid the topic, research suggests that it is best for children to learn of these stories in a straight-forward, manner-of-fact way. Most of the time, your child is likely to hear about this event through peers or on the television and hearing it through these channels may be more anxiety-provoking for your child.

Tips for talking to kids about a tragedy:

  1. Keep your message simple and factual

Say something like, “A bad person decided to hurt other people.” For young children, this may be all the information they need. Older children are likely to ask more questions. It’s always okay to say you don’t know all the answers, and validate the child’s feelings (e.g., “I agree, it makes me sad and confused too.”)

  1. Present a resilient and empowering approach to coping

Your response to the event will likely impact your child’s beliefs about other people and the world in general.  Exposure to media coverage or to excessive discussion about the causes of the event could lead your child to conclude that the world is unpredictable and frightening. It is best to take a proactive, factual approach to instill healthy beliefs in your kids. Rather than saying, “Bad things don’t happen,” tell your children, “Bad things happen sometimes, but we’re strong enough to deal with those things.”

  1. Emphasize the measures taken to keep people safe

Reassure your child that police officers, government officials, and other first responders are helping. Spend more time talking about the good things people are doing, rather than the violent event. This can help decrease your child’s worries about safety.

  1. Use caution when discussing motive

Children are likely to ask tough questions such as, “Why would someone do that?” “Do people want to hurt us?” Even if you suspect religious or political motives, don’t share those thoughts with young children.  It is best to keep your message brief, positive, and factual for young children.  Invite teenagers to express ideas about why someone may harm others.  You may want to share some of your thoughts, but do so cautiously and recognize that your words can leave a lasting impression; you don’t want to add to stereotypes your teen may already have.  If you tell your teen that the perpetrator likely had a mental illness, also be clear that the vast majority of people with mental illnesses don’t commit violent crimes. This is important because you don’t want to teach your kids that people with a mental health problem are bad or should be feared.

  1. Offer follow-up conversations

Kids, just like adults, may need some time to process the information. You may wait for your child to bring up questions, perhaps at the most unexpected times. Or you may observe a change in behaviors, such as more shooting scenes in your child’s play or a recurrent nightmare, and use that as an opportunity to talk more about the tragedy.

Restoring a sense of safety and security in your family

Tragic events can serve as a catalyst for positive change and reflection.  In the aftermath of an event that may have shaken up your faith in other people or your sense of security, it is helpful to take steps to restore your family’s safety.  This can be a time to reflect on the things that are under your control, and what you can do to ensure your children’s safety as well as their confidence for coping with a crisis.

  • Let your children know they are safe and loved. Explain that this event may change some rules in our country, but most things in his/her life will stay the same.
  • You can use this as an opportunity to tighten up some rules in your family that will help keep your children safe. This may mean reviewing rules about communication (e.g., your child calls or texts you whenever they go somewhere) and curfews. While this may sound harsh or challenging for some parents, keep in mind that children thrive in settings with clear limits and consistent discipline.
    1. Do not let Children Watch the News: Recent research has found that watching news footage (TV or online) of a violent event can be psychologically distressing for children and adolescents (Comer et al., 2017; Ferrara et al., 2016). Keep the TV on kid-safe channels when the children are awake, and calmly change the channel if news story comes on while your child is in the room. Young children have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy when they are watching images on the screen, and this ability develops as kids mature. School-age children may develop anxiety or irrational fears about the images that they see on TV, which can often be graphic.  Children should not be permitted to follow news coverage, but if they happen to observe, be sure to help clarify their concerns.
    2. Regulate News for Teenagers: For teens who want to watch news coverage, watch (TV or online) with them so you may clarify questions or concerns that arise. Encourage them to comment on what they see, and help them view scenes from multiple perspectives. Ask about their feelings. Emphasize the help offered by volunteers/strangers who care. Monitor what they view on the internet.
    3. Develop a safety plan for emergency situations: It will be helpful for your family to discuss various hypothetical emergencies and calmly review actions to take to stay safe in a situation if it becomes dangerous. Teach your children to seek help from police or other authorities. Create a communication plan for how your family members will get in touch with one another.
  • Continue to encourage your child to try new things and be adventurous! Although the news of these tragedies may have evoked distress and discomfort in many parents, children look to their parents for how to feel about the world. By encouraging your children to continue with their favorite hobbies, try new activities, and venture to new places, you help them face the world with confidence and self-assurance.

Children’s Reactions to Stressful Events

Children may show a variety of reactions to stressful events, even events from which they are far removed.  There is no “typical” or “normal” reaction to stress. Some common reactions of children include nightmares, increased crying, bedtime anxiety, difficulty separating from parent, defiant/disruptive behaviors, social withdrawal, regression in behaviors (e.g., reverting to thumb-sucking, “baby-talk,” bedwetting), and physical complaints (e.g., stomachache, headache).  Some common reactions of teenagers include social withdrawal, sleep problems, defiant behaviors, changes in appetite, physical complaints (e.g., stomachache, headache), or emotional numbness.

Most of the time kids are resilient to stressful events, and emotional/behavioral symptoms will resolve within a few weeks. However, it is important to closely monitor your child’s emotional and behavioral changes because persistent, distressing symptoms can suggest the presence of a more serious concern that may warrant professional help from a mental health provider.  If you have a question about your child’s health or his/her response to a stressful event, you can seek professional help from one of our therapists who specializes in working with children and adolescents. Please call us at (724) 902-5002. 

By: Dr. Lindsey Breznik (formerly Steding)Licensed Child Psychologist

Online Resources:


Beresin, G. (2017). Another shooting – another opportunity to comfort and talk with our kids. Retrieved from http://www.mghclaycenter.org/hot-topics/another-shooting-another-opportunity-to-comfort-and-talk-with-our-kids/

Comer, J. S., DeSerisy, M., & Green, J.G. (2017). Caregiver-reports of internet exposure and posttraumatic stress among Boston-area youth following the 2013 marathon bombing. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health1(2-3), 86-102.

Ferrara, P., Corsello, G., Ianniello, F., Sbordone, A., Ehrich, J., & Pettoello-Mantovani, M. (2016). Impact of distressing media imagery on children. The Journal of pediatrics174, 285-286.

This post was first published here: www.papsychotherapy.com